5 Ways to Save on In-Flight Food and Beverages

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  • Bringing your own food is an easy way to save, but be aware of security and/or customs rules.
  • Some travel and airline credit cards offer perks that can reduce the cost of in-flight purchases.
  • Flying in premium classes can come with free refreshments. You can often use airline miles to upgrade your fare class.

Friends don't let friends fly hungry.

For most of us, flying isn't fun. We're stuck with hundreds of strangers -- some of questionable hygiene -- in a little metal can for hours on end. And that's after we suffered through security lines, half-mile hikes through crowded terminals, and multiple boarding delays.

If you're anything like me, by the time you board, you're tired, stressed, and starving. But if you thought the airport food was expensive, just wait until you see what they're charging for chips at 30,000 feet.

You can probably get by without a bite on shorter flights. But anything longer than a few hours will be far more pleasant if you have some sort of sustenance. Here are a few ways to make the cost of eating on your flight easier to swallow.

1. Bring your own

The simplest solution to airplane food is to bring your own snacks and drinks. And I don't mean stuff you bought in the airport before boarding. 

Just as you might for a road trip, pack a few snacks for your next flight. Chips, nuts, even fresh fruits and vegetables can be taken through airport security without too much hassle. At worst, they may need to go through the scanners separate from your luggage.

Be mindful of anything that could be considered a liquid. This includes pastes like nut butter or hummus. Anything in this category needs to follow TSA 3-1-1 rules for liquids, including being under 3.4 ounces.

Additionally, if you're going to travel internationally, read up on any prohibited foods. For example, many countries prohibit bringing outside produce due to the risk of agricultural contamination.

2. Book higher fare classes

Another simple -- albeit less affordable -- way to eat and drink on the cheap while flying is to book a premium fare class. The farther to the front of the plane you are, the less you typically pay for meals and refreshments.

On domestic flights, first-class passengers get free food and beverages, including alcoholic drinks. Internationally, business and first class passengers receive the same perk (and the food is often of better quality, at that). 

Depending on the difference in ticket costs, the free grub could make the upgrade more reasonable.

3. Use a credit card airline fee credit

If you are stuck buying food or drinks on the plane, your favorite travel rewards card may cover it. A few popular travel cards offer statement credits for incidental airline fees. Most of these credits will cover in-flight food and beverage purchases, including alcohol.

One thing to keep in mind is that most of these credits are only eligible on a single airline each year. You also need to select your airline before you make your purchases for them to be eligible to be credited. If you're not flying on your selected airline, the purchases won't qualify.

4. Pay with a co-branded credit card

Even if your travel card doesn't offer airline fee credits, it could still help you out on board if it's an airline credit card. Most co-branded airline cards come with a discount on in-flight food and beverage purchases, typically around 25%.

Technically, your discount won't be taken off at the time of purchase. Instead, it will be applied as a statement credit on your card within a few weeks of making your purchases.

5. Redeem airline miles

There are a few ways you can use your airline miles to save on food while flying. If you're a United passenger, you can do it directly by redeeming miles to pay for on-board purchases. United MileagePlus miles can be redeemed for food and drink at a flat rate of $0.008 per mile. This isn't a great redemption option compared to flights, but it's an option.

Alternatively, many airline loyalty programs let you use airline miles to upgrade your fare. For example, you could buy an economy ticket and use miles to upgrade to first class. As noted above, premium fares usually come with free refreshments.

Whether you pack a lunch, use credit card discounts, or enjoy the free food in first class -- eat something. Flying is stressful enough on its own. Don't fly hungry. 

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